Letter 34

Viscount Valmont to the Marchioness de Merteuil

You write enchantingly, my charming friend; but why take so much trouble to prove a position which all the world knows, that to make a quick progress in love matters, it is better to speak than write? This, I believe, is the full contents of your letter; and is it not the first elements of the art of seduction? I will only remark, that you make but one exception to this principle, and that there are two: with children, who take this step through timidity, and give themselves up through ignorance, you must add the women of genius, who are dupes to self-love and vanity, which leads them into the snare. For example; I am very certain that the Countess de B⁠⸺, who answered, without hesitating, my first letter, had then no more affection for me, than I had for her; and that in this connection she had no other view, than being engaged with a person whom she imagined would do her honour.

However, a lawyer will tell you, that the maxim is not applicable to the question; for you suppose that it is at my option to write or speak, which is not the case. Since the affair of the 20th, my cruel charmer, who keeps on the defensive, has studiously avoided meeting me, a piece of address which totally disconcerts me: so that if it should continue, she will oblige me to think seriously on the means of regaining this advantage; as I most assuredly will not be baffled by her in this manner; even my letters are the occasion of a little warfare: not satisfied with giving no reply, she even refuses receiving them, and I am under the necessity of a new stratagem for each, which does not always succeed.

You may recollect in what a simple manner I delivered the first; the second was not more difficult. She required I should return her letter; I gave her mine instead of it, without her having the least suspicion. But whether from vexation to have been duped, whether through capriciousness or virtue, for she will oblige me to believe she is virtuous, she has obstinately refused the third. I expect, however, from the embarrassment that this refusal had like to put her in, she will in future be more cautious.

However, I was not much astonished that she would not receive that letter, which I offered her in a very plain manner⁠—that would have been granting something⁠—and I expect a longer defence. After this effort, which was only an essay by way of trial, I put a cover over my letter, and taking the opportunity when she was at her toilette, when Madame de Rosemonde and her waiting-maid were present, I sent it her by my huntsman, ordering him to tell her that it was the paper she asked me for. I rightly judged that she would dread a scandalous explanation, which a refusal would necessarily have brought on; and indeed she took the letter. My ambassador, who had orders to observe her countenance diligently, and who is a shrewd fellow, perceived only a slight blush, with more embarrassment than anger.

I applauded myself, being very certain that she would either keep this letter, or, if she meant to return it, she must take an opportunity when we were alone, and then could not avoid a conference. About an hour after, one of her people came into my room, from his mistress, and delivered me a packet, folded in another form than my own, on the cover of which I immediately perceived the long-wished-for characters. I broke the seal with rapture⁠—Behold! it was my own letter, unsealed, and doubled down.⁠—I suspect she dreaded I was not so scrupulous as she, on the score of scandal, which made her invent this diabolical stratagem. You know me well⁠—I have no occasion to describe the rage this put me into. However, I was obliged to be calm, and to think of other means⁠—and this is the only one I could think of:⁠—

Every morning there is a man sent for the letters from this to the post office, which is about three quarters of a league; for this purpose a small box, in the shape of a trunk, is made use of; the master of the post office keeps one key, and Madame de Rosemonde the other. Everyone puts in their letters when they think proper, and they are carried at night to the post office: in the morning the messenger goes back for those that arrive. All the servants, strangers and others, take it in turn. It was not my servant’s turn; but he offered to go, on pretence that he had business there.

I wrote my letter. I disguised the superscription in a feigned hand, and counterfeited tolerably, on the cover, the post mark of Dijon. I chose this town in a gay humour, as I wished for the same rites as the husband; I also wrote from the same place; and likewise because my fair one had been all day expressing her wish to receive letters from Dijon, I thought it but right to give her that satisfaction.

Those precautions taken, it was a matter of no difficulty to mix this letter with the others; and I still had it in view to be witness to its reception; for the custom is to assemble together at breakfast, and wait the arrival of the letters before we separate. At length they arrived.

Madame de Rosemonde opened the box. “From Dijon,” said she, giving the letter to Madame de Tourvel. “It is not my husband’s writing,” replied the other, in some confusion, breaking open the seal immediately. The first glance informed her who it came from, and made such a change in her countenance, that Madame de Rosemonde took notice of it, and said, “What ails you?” I immediately drew near, saying, “This letter must be very dreadful indeed!” The timorous devotee did not lift up her eyes, nor speak a syllable; and to conceal her embarrassment, feigned to run over the letter, which she was scarce able to read. I enjoyed her uneasiness; and wishing to push it a little farther.⁠—“Your easy air,” replied I, “makes me hope that this letter has been the occasion of more astonishment than grief.” Her anger then overpowered her prudence. “It contains,” replied she, “things that offend me much; and that I am astonished anyone would dare write to me.” And “who then can it be?” replied Madame de Rosemonde. “It is not signed,” replied the angry fair; “but the letter and its author I equally despise: and I shall take it as a favour to say no more about it.” So saying, she tore the audacious epistle, put the scraps in her pocket, rose, and went out.

Notwithstanding all this anger, she nevertheless has my letter; and I depend upon her curiosity that she will read it.

The circumstances of this day would lead me too far. I enclose you the rough draft of my two letters, which will acquaint you with everything. If you wish to know the course of this correspondence, you must accustom yourself to decypher my minutes; for I would not for the world take the trouble of copying them. Adieu, my lovely friend!